“The General Assembly should enact legislation which re-structures, effective school year 1999-2000, Arkansas' existing 311 school districts into not more than 134 "administrative units" where an administrative unit is defined as "one superintendent and an associated superintendent's staff.” (Murphy Commission, “Streamlining and Cost-Saving Opportunities in Arkansas’ K-12 Public Education System,” September 1998)

(October 2005) An old adage cautions, ‘Be careful what you ask for.’ Some Arkansas school superintendents may end up wishing they had not challenged the General Assembly’s action on K-12 public education in the 2005 regular session. Several legislators, following this month’s report from Special Masters Bradley Jesson and David Newbern, suggested that a measure to make superintendents state overdue.

Further centralization of K-12 decision-making within the state Department of Education would be a policy error. Hiring decisions regarding superintendents are best left to local school boards, not Little Rock educrats. A more efficient K-12 system, however, requires fewer school superintendents, not the same number drawing larger salaries. Masters Jesson and Newbern appeared to imply the consolidation that has occurred, and will occur, is the result of inadequate taxpayer funding, not the inefficiencies identified by the Murphy Commission in 1998 that led the panel to recommend eliminating at least177 administrative posts.

Masters Jesson and Newbern wrote in their report to the Supreme Court:

“Dr. Kenneth James, Commissioner of Education, acknowledged in his deposition testimony that the consolidations now occurring result from schools falling into “distress.” As of the time the depositions which form a part of the record in these proceedings were taken, there were sixteen school districts in “fiscal distress” and, as indicated by Department of Education documents, some sixty-eight high schools on academic probation and possibly headed for “academic distress.” To those terms has now been added “facilities distress,” which may have the same Draconian consequences, that is, school districts that fall into distress become subject to takeover by the Department of Education and may be consolidated forcibly when other attempted cures fail.”

The 2004 consolidation of 59 K-12 school districts by the General Assembly occurred in response to Court action in the Lake View school finance case. The Court did not use the term “consolidation” in naming Jesson and Newbern in 2004. The Masters, in a later 2004 report to the Court, discussed efficiency, noting, “We also cannot ignore administrative consolidation, which has the potential for making more efficient use of the resources already available.” The Masters’ suggestion, in this month’s report, that consolidation occurs due to inadequate funding, is a reversal.

Masters Jesson and Newbern told the Court in their report:

“The problem with the approach of consolidation as the result of failure is that it ignores what is happening in the classrooms during the years leading up to one or more of the distress conditions and the ensuing struggle to cope with it at the local level. Several of the superintendents who testified before us said that their districts would not be able to avoid fiscal distress if the level of funding were not raised, as they were having to invade their fund balances just to stay up with required programs.”

The inefficiencies that exist in Arkansas’ K-12 system are not the result of inadequate taxpayer funding. They exist because of the inadequate accountability standards identified by the Murphy Commission in 1998.

The Policy Foundation filed amicus curiae briefs in the Lake View case as a neutral party in 2002, and again in 2004. The briefs placed several 1998 Murphy Commission recommendations before the Court, arguing that Arkansas would benefit from accountability and testing measures, efficiency, administrative restructuring and a functional accounting system.

Key Murphy Commission K-12 recommendations were enacted in 2004 and 2005. Enactment of other Murphy Commission recommendations, not the appropriation of more tax dollars for a system with an incomplete accountability system, is the principled fiscal conservative response to the Special Masters report issued this week. Arkansas’ K-12 system needs fewer administrators, not more tax dollars spent without accountability.